Laurier is pursing a vision it can’t afford

What is it, truly, that adds to a university’s “global reputation?”

Custodial workers at Wilfrid Laurier University have gone on strike, and the university administration has done its best to construct itself as the epitome of a reasonable employer. Thus, they point out, no current employees will lose their jobs. That’s true, but then that’s what employers always propose when they put in place problematic workplace policies, and what it really means is that the union, and current employees, care more about future employees than the administration.

Most importantly, the administration says that contracting out will get things done more cheaply — which of course is also true, and will always be true, when people are paid less and get fewer if any benefits.

Still, Laurier is facing a structural deficit, so aren’t job-destroying “efficiencies” justified? In the end, your answer here, I suggest, will depend on how you come down on the issue of why a structural deficit exists, and this, in turn, requires us to consider something that is just never part of the discussion.

About 10 years ago, Laurier decided to move from being a “Primarily Undergraduate” university to a “Comprehensive” university (the formal change in the Maclean’s Survey occurred in 2011). And what did this shift mean? Partly, it meant a proliferation of graduate programs. Why? Because graduate programs are key to “building Laurier’s global reputation” (that’s a quote from the report on Graduate Student Enrolment presented to Laurier’s board governors last month).

Did the province really need to pay for another Comprehensive University, especially one just down the street from a Comprehensive University (the University of Waterloo) with an outstanding reputation? Not sure that the public — and in particular the taxpaying public — ever got to weigh in on that.

Some of the increased costs were capital expenses associated with some graduate programs, but a lot of the increase was associated with the salaries needed to attract the professors who staff these programs. And even a quick look at the 2016 Sunshine list will give you a good idea of just how high some of those faculty salaries are.

The drive to sail in the same waters as the University of Waterloo has also been accompanied by an increase in highly paid administrators. An example: We used to have a single Dean of Students. That one position has now become three: a Dean of Students at each campus (Waterloo and Brantford) and a vice-president of Student Affairs — whose combined salaries on the 2016 list is over $450K. I know all three people currently in those positions, and I have no hesitation in saying that all three are talented and dedicated. The point is simply that “one” became “three” and that the salary costs alone are high (especially given what the administration says it will save through its contracting out proposals).

The complicating factor in the case of professorial salaries is, of course, tenure. Yes, I know, tenure protects academic freedom, the right to seek the truth without fear of losing your job. And yes, this can be a valuable resource in promoting collegial governance. Certainly, I’ve relied on it myself a number of times over my career. But this does not negate other truths. First, a lot of professors will never make use of academic freedom, and I’ve always thought (OK, this is whimsical) that for some, if a truly controversial idea popped into their head, they’d faint.

Mainly, though, although everyone denies it, the reality is that tenure is de facto job security. True, universities across North American can and have found ways to dismiss troublesome professors, but this is rare — and a reason not to be troublesome. The bottom line, though, is that addressing budgetary issues by going after the tenured faculty salary mass is difficult if not impossible.

And so what do universities do? What many employers do: Go after the employees with the least power to resist.

It might be nice to live in a world where letting notions of social justice guide employment policies would add as much to a university’s “global reputation” as graduate programs, but we’re not there yet. Still, this is not to say we couldn’t get there, or at least try.

For example, two years ago exactly, McMaster University made a similar attempt to contract out custodial services. It almost happened, but a strong and principled faculty counteroffensive caused them to rethink that plan. A letter circulated to faculty by Don Wells, in McMaster’s Department of Labour Studies, pointed out that custodial workers were “especially vulnerable in our increasingly precarious labour markets (being) recent immigrants, women, single parents, racialized workers, etc.” and went on to say that notwithstanding McMaster’s financial problems “Those who are at the lowest end of Mac’s pay scale should have the highest priority in meeting their needs and those of their families.” Good points, and, as I say, the university relented.

There’s been some resistance offered by faculty here at Laurier, but it seems limited, and I fear that the erosion of reasonably-paid custodial jobs for vulnerable people will be another cost that will have to be chalked up to Laurier’s decision to pursue a vision it cannot afford.

Michael Carroll is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University. He recently completed a five-year year term as Laurier’s Dean of Arts.